The debacle in Texas recently with the winter storm and resultant collapse of several essential services should be a wake-up call for the rest of us that enjoy civilization. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas claimed however that Texans would rather freeze in their homes than accept federal intervention in their power grid. Really? Good luck with that.
First and foremost we need to recognize that civilization requires cooperation, in fact, that is what civilization is. A big part of Texas’s recent problem is that they don’t recognize this. Much of Texas’s electricity is supplied by a “private grid” that doesn’t require federal oversight. The rest of the United States is powered by one of two much larger grids that do.
The larger the grid the easier it is to ship power from an unstressed region to one of stress. It’s no accident that the lights stayed on in El Paso, Texas because their power that may have failed during the blizzard didn’t. Simply, they were connected to a wider grid that shipped power in from areas unaffected by the blizzard.
“Unaffected by the blizzard” means two things, both of which were addressed in El Paso. Over a decade ago, El Paso suffered a grid failure due to cold weather. They learned their lesson and upgraded the capacity of their electrical system to withstand the vagaries of cold weather.
Societal trends here in the United States, as elsewhere in many parts of the world, is to increased reliance on electricity as the clean power source of the future – and we need to get ready for it. It will not be cheap but it must be done.
Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg recently spoke of a maintenance backlog. He was of course talking about our transportation systems like roads and bridges, but it also applies to our electrical grid. More interconnections, more weather protection, even more terrorist/sabotage protection, are necessary.
More interconnections will help promote the greater utilization of intermittent power sources such as wind and solar. Much more power will be needed as we electrify our transportation systems – electric cars and delivery vehicles, up to and including semis. Both freight and high-speed passenger service can with relative ease be powered by electricity.
Weather protection may in some places require that we bury our electric transmission lines, just as pipelines. For that matter, we could bury much of our transportation. Elon Musk, of Tesla and Space-X fame, also has boring company. He has suggested that high-speed rails would benefit greatly by going into underground tunnels where the pressure could be reduced to limit wind resistance. Giant pneumatic tubes for transportation just like bank remote window use for checks.
The cost for all the needed improvements for the future is not trivial but will mean jobs. And that is the very essence of civilization: we cooperate for the benefit of all.
Dr Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.